Son reads dead father’s diary at Writers Read event

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Shokichi Tokita read the diary of his father Kamekicha, who had died when Shokichi was only 14. (Photo provided by the JCCCW)

Though Kamekicha Tokita has been dead since 1948, his work took center stage at the latest installment of the “Writers Read” program, which took place Aug. 25 at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Washington. He was brought back to life through the voice of his son, Shokichi Tokita, as he read his father’s book, “Signs of Hope: The Paintings and Wartime Diary of Kamekichi Tokita.”

He told the audience about his father’s art, about the family’s WWII experiences in Idaho’s Minidoka Relocation Camp, and the laborious but rewarding process of bringing his father’s work and words to the public.

“One of my favorite memories,” the younger Tokita said, “was riding our wagon, scooter, and roller skates in our ‘confined’ playground, which was the sidewalk around the Cadillac Hotel block (168 Jackson St). I was required to stop at both alleyways before crossing, and never, ever allowed to cross the fire station driveway or the street … [I] also enjoyed going to Collins Playfield (now Seattle Buddhist Church property across the street), Alki Beach, and Lincoln Park in the summertime.”

Shokichi Tokita admits that as a child, he didn’t know much about his father’s art.

“I knew he painted,” he said, “but didn’t realize he was an artist, until well after he died in October of 1948. I was the oldest of eight children, so I’m guessing that he didn’t have much time, or didn’t feel that I was old enough to discuss art with me. I was 14 when he passed away.”

Professor Barbara Johns of the University of Washington, however, picked up Kamekichi Tokita’s trail decades later.

“I became acquainted with Tokita’s work at the Seattle Art Museum,” she remembers, “where I worked in the 1980s and which has six paintings in the collection. I included one of them in a major survey of art in the Northwest that I curated in the summer of 1990 as part of the museum’s participation in the Goodwill Games … My respect for Tokita’s paintings has only grown with the writing of the book, so that I see it in much greater complexity. I am presently engaged in further study of it and that of two of his colleagues, Kenjiro Nomura and Takuichi Fujii.”

Johns eventually made contact with Shokichi Tokita, and they discussed publishing the elder Tokita’s work in a book form. However, the diary was written in pre-WWII, complex “old Japanese” instead of modern Japanese, which has far fewer characters. Shokichi had to call in favors from an elderly cousin’s husband, who could read and translate old Japanese, then consult with a translator in Los Angeles for a second translation into English.

Shokichi had help from his own nephew Eric Hwang, in formatting the resulting English text.

But it was Pat Soden, manager of the University of Washington Press, who gave final permission for “Signs of Home” to proceed, in 2011, as a collection of both the diary and Kamekichi Tokita’s art. Johns, who co-wrote the book, stressed that “others at the press most directly involved were Beth Fuget, acquisitions editor, who was deeply committed to making the book, and particularly the diary, readily accessible to contemporary readers; Marilyn Trueblood, who guided the book through production; and Tom Eykemans, the book’s designer. An author is often told, ‘What a beautiful book!,’ when it’s the designer who should get that credit!”

At the event, Shokichi recalled reading his father’s words in English for the first time in 2004, and said: “I started reading it, and finally realized that what my mother had told me all these years, that Papa was a very smart man, was true. A little background about my relationship with my father is necessary at this point. Papa was a strict disciplinarian. He was, in my opinion, so strict that I disliked him, and Mama knew it. She always explained to me why I was being disciplined, and then always added that I should listen because Papa was a very smart man.”

“Well, you can imagine my attitude about Papa being a very smart man when I was being disciplined. Not very good, I’m afraid. But when I started reading the diary, I had to agree with Mama. He was a very smart man.” (end)

For more information about “Signs of Home: The Painting and Wartime Dairy of Kamekichi Tokita,” visit www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/johsig.html.

Andrew Hamlin can be contacted at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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